While driverless cars may now be a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, in Japan, their countryside counterpart, the robot tractor, is already on the move. Demographic decline, coupled with urbanisation, means that the average number of farmers fell by 22% between 2005 and 2015, while their average age is currently a venerable 67. According to Agriculture Ministry statistics, 81% of the farming machine-related accidents in 2016 involved a farmer over the age of 65.
Consequently, a number of Japanese machinery manufacturers are betting big on the future of agriculture being ‘smart’ and automated. Iseki and Co. Ltd, one of the archipelago’s largest players in the field, already manufactures driverless, smart rice transplanters that fertilize as they transplant, while simultaneously measuring soil depth and sending the relevant information to fertilizer dispensers.
Ibaraki prefecture, just north of Tokyo, is Japan’s breadbasket. It is also home to Iseki and Co.’s optimistically named ‘Dreamy Agricultural Research Institute’, a space filled with tank-like machines, clad in sensors and cameras that look straight out of a 1980s sci-fi movie. Smart combine harvesters rub mechanical shoulders with smart hullers and graders. But, among all these machines, the pride of place belongs to Iseki’s flagship offering: the Robot Tractor TJV655.
This driverless tractor came in the market in December 2018. It can sense any obstruction on the field and come to an automatic halt when needed. It can make U-turns using GPS technology to determine its location. The machine can also be used for tilling the ground and applying the optimal amount of fertilizer and pesticide. Katsushi Miwada, the general manager of Iseki’s Agri-Business Solutions Department, says driverless tractors are likely to become popular faster than autonomous cars, given that they need to worry less about compensating for the behaviour of other vehicles and pedestrians. They can also be put to work 24 hours a day, exponentially increasing farming efficiency.
One of the main constraining factors, however, is cost. The TJV655 retails for 12 million yen ($1,10,000) and has only sold 10 units so far, a drop in the ocean of the almost 40,000 units that Iseki sells of the same size tractor in a year. The latter are priced at 7.1 million yen ($65,000).
Mr. Miwada hastens to explain that the company considers the next year or two to still be a pilot phase when the focus will be on training potential users and familiarising them with the technology, rather than on sales.
And, despite the hefty price tag, in the end farmers may simply have no other choice. Mr. Miwada cites the example of the northern island of Hokkaido where at the start of this century, a farmer worked an average of 18.9 ha of land. Today that number has risen to 30.1 ha. The trend of burgeoning farm size looks set to continue as long as Japan’s population decline continues. “There are not enough tractor operators per hectare,” he concludes.
This correspondent jumps at the opportunity to test drive a robot tractor and has to constantly beat down the desire to shout out, “look, no hands”, as the tractor pivots and halts without any manual intervention. However, a human is still required to monitor the workings of the tractor in the field, until the safety measures have been fully established. The dream part of Iseki’s ‘Dreamy Agricultural Research Institute’ is one that envisages a farmer in his 80s, sending his fleet of driverless tractors off to plough, sow and harvest his crops from the comfort of his living room sofa. Two other firms, Kubota Corporation and Yanmar, have also developed similar machines. For Japan, the possibility of regaining the high–tech leadership that it has ceded to China is urgent. China has already emerged as the frontrunner in autonomous cars. Beijing also recently announced a seven-year goal for developing fully automated machinery capable of planting, fertilizing and harvesting staple crops.
The production of Japan’s traditional agricultural products — rice, wheat, beef, dairy and sugar — has dropped 32% in the past 50 years. Whether the deployment of artificial intelligence can stem this decline remains an open question. What is certain is that without it, Japanese agriculture is an endangered species.
(Pallavi Aiyar is an author and journalist based in Tokyo)